City of Sydney joins 600 others declaring a climate emergency

July 4, 2019
Sydney City Council has declared a climate emergency. Photo: City of Sydney

On June 24, Lord Mayor Clover Moore called on the City of Sydney council to declare a climate emergency. The motion passed unanimously, and Sydney joined a snowballing list of councils globally that have made similar declarations.

But as the dust of the federal election settles and a sleepy giant begins to stir in the Galilee Basin, what will be the significance of Sydney council’s words?

The language surrounding climate has changed over the last year or so. “Emergency”, “crisis” and “breakdown” are now being used by activists, politicians and even the media. While it might seem like the “emergency” has came out of nowhere, groups and individuals have been campaigning for governments to mobilise resources in response to climate change for years.

In the late 2000s, a grassroots network of journalists, academics, psychologists and activists began discussing climate change in emergency terms. They developed models of what an emergency response would look like, based on the work of organisations like the Centre for Alternative Technology and Beyond Zero Emissions.

The term “climate emergency” was popularised in the 2008 book Climate Code Red: The Case for Emergency Action, in which authors David Spratt and Philip Sutton argued for the need to devote as much of the world’s economic capacity as possible to avert a climatic and ecological catastrophe.

Strong language was used to communicate the scale and pace of the system change they felt was needed. But it was ignored by mainstream environmental organisations and most politicians.

“We’ve been fighting a discourse battle, which is about changing the language from soft targets and weak incremental goals to ‘this is really serious and we need massive change and we need it now’,” said Adrian Whitehead, one of the early campaigners.

The groups went various ways, some founding the Save the Planet party, others focused on raising awareness. After years of lobbying federal and state governments, which seemed utterly incapable of acknowledging the gravity of climate change, the activists changed tack: if higher levels of government wouldn’t share their appreciation of the urgency, maybe councils would.

In 2016, as the Great Barrier Reef stewed and average global temperatures soared, they ran a campaign targeting the Darebin City Council in northern Melbourne.

Whitehead and Bryony Edwards stood for council, spreading the emergency message via presentations and leafleting. Other climate groups lobbied candidates to support a climate emergency declaration. 

While neither Whitehead nor Edwards were elected, they continued to push the newly-elected councillors to declare an emergency. Then, at the Darebin council’s first meeting on December 5, 2016, history was made. Since then, more than 600 jurisdictions across 13 countries have done the same.

 Commitment to action needed

What is a climate emergency declaration and why is it important? It is a public declaration of the climate emergency, signalling a recognition that current approaches to climate change mitigation are inadequate and that unprecedented steps need to be taken at all levels of government.

Ideally, it is accompanied by a strong commitment to action. Most climate emergency groups support a target of net negative emissions in 10 years.

In “emergency” mode, a council is able to direct discretionary funds towards implementing policies that address the emergency, including building bike paths and providing solar panels for low-income households.

There are valid concerns that hastily granting states emergency powers will suppress democracy and further entrench social/environmental injustices. However, you could also argue that 30 years of inaction has exacerbated social and environmental injustice, especially for those in poor countries.

Climate change is “the great moral challenge of our generation” and, as noted by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), “there is no documented historical precedent” for the action required to effectively address it.

Calling it what it is — an emergency — is a strong step forward.

How do you get your council to make a declaration? In the case of Sydney’s Inner West Council, just ask. Reid Pierce, a founding member of Extinction Rebellion’s Sydney chapter, was preparing for a long campaign but, after asking a Green councillor and a lot of “behind the scenes calling, emailing and pushing councillors to do the right thing”, the motion passed unanimously in early May. Reid has also been invited to work with the CEO on council’s implementation of an emergency response.

Reid then jumped into the City of Sydney campaign with councillors who were “much more hands-on in making sure their declaration is different from all others”.

Moore explicitly called on the Morrison coalition government to re-establish a carbon price and establish a “Just Transition Authority” to assist those employed in the fossil fuel industries to find alternative employment.

Why now?

For some, the 10-year timeframes for achieving zero emissions may seem ludicrously ambitious. But when reports of unprecedented biodiversity loss come on the heels of reports of the near-term existential risks of climate change, it is worth considering how we got to this point without the groundswell of dissent we see today.

For decades, climate advocacy organisations said hope was more motivational than fear and that climate “alarmism” was counter-productive. This caution, along with scientific and journalistic reticence and industry-sponsored climate denialism, obscured the urgency.

Until recently.

In 2017, the messaging debate came to a head when New York Magazine published a story by David Wallace-Wells in which he explored the near-term, worst-case climate change scenarios, which were alarming.

In 2018, an emboldened IPCC published a report outlining just how much more dangerous a 2°Celsius rise above pre-industrial levels (the long-term limit of the Paris Agreement) would be as opposed to 1.5°Celsius. The IPCC warned we only had 12 years to limit catastrophic warming; the scientists had unmuzzled themselves.

Winds of climate change

The Climate Mobilisation (TCM), a separate initiative in the United States, partly influenced by Climate Code Red and proposals developed in Australia, which was launched in 2014 called for a society-wide mobilisation of resources at a WWII-scale to decarbonise the economy within a 10-year time frame.

While it succeeded in getting a climate mobilisation resolution into the Democratic Party’s platform via Bernie Sanders in 2016, President Donald Trump immediately proceeded to gut environmental regulations and agencies (reminiscent of Tony Abbott’s rollbacks following his election).

Climate emergency advocates in Australia, particularly Philip Sutton, brought their US counterparts up to speed with their piecemeal local-government strategy. After seeing the success in Darebin, TCM adopted the same approach and, soon, councils across the US were doing the same.

More recently, TCM encouraged the Democratic Party’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to introduce a climate emergency declaration to Congress, and she went on to champion the Green New Deal.

Then, last year, the language and tactics of the climate movement exploded into the public sphere. In August 2018, Greta Thunberg gave school a miss and sat on the steps of the Swedish Parliament with a hand-painted sign which read “Skolstrejk för klimatet” (school strike for the climate).

The following October, Extinction Rebellion rallied for the first time in Parliament Square in London, announcing a “Declaration of Rebellion” against the British government.

Thunberg’s protest galvanised a generation that had grown up with a future buried in uncertainty. Likewise, Extinction Rebellion’s simple and direct demands resonated with people all over the world: the movement grew rapidly.

The ensuing mass school strikes and acts of colourful civil disobedience drew international attention to the climate emergency and the world started discussing climate change.

In Britain, more than 100 councils, representing roughly 50% of the population, have now made climate emergency declarations.

Following the original success in Darebin, Whitehead and Edwards established CACE, an online resource for campaigners and councils alike. They travelled to Europe and Britain to witness the burgeoning movement, and to meet councillors, environmental organisations, think tanks, Extinction Rebellion and school strike networks to reiterate that the original spirit of a climate emergency declaration was about mobilisation and emergency action.

Today as we stand against the edge of a cliff, behind us a fire of our own making and in front of us the hopeful unknown, there are encouraging signs.

In the past few months parliaments, including Britain, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Canada, have declared a climate emergency. The Pope did so last week. Climate change is set to be a defining issue of the 2020 US presidential election.

What does this mean for Australia which has just re-elected a government that is incapable of enacting effective climate policies?

It means there’s a lot of work to do.

Australia is a wealthy country, endowed with abundant renewable resources and, according to The Australia Institute there is overwhelming popular support for the government to make the rapid energy transition.

We don’t have time for complacency or despair.

[To start a climate emergency campaign in your council, detailed guides can be found at CACE.]

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